Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) was assigned by Control (John Hurt), head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) during the Cold War, to meet with a man in Budapest who claimed to know the name of the Russian mole deeply embedded in the organization. The mission was a failure which forced Control and Smiley (Gary Oldman), one of the head’s main lieutenants, into early retirement. When Control becomes indisposed, Smiley takes over the investigation, in secret, and makes Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) his right-hand man.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on a novel by John le Carré, daringly thrusts its audiences in a translucent fog of mystery sans proper introduction in terms of who serves which function and why, but it is nonetheless fascinating, in a very dry manner, because there is a traitor in their mist who is very good at what he or she does. Although it requires a bit of time and patience for us to acclimate to its languid pace and dour mood, it feels appropriate and increasingly impressive due to the paranoia that constricts the plot.
Because certain elements in the picture offer varying levels of austerity, like its sparseness of music, it forces us to focus our senses on the minutiae. I found myself focusing on facial ticks and thinking about which gestures specific characters end up adopting when I suspected fabrication in their stories.
Funnily enough, I began to notice the texture of the walls. For example, in the SIS conference room, the walls look yellow, funky, and rough. It is very business-like, the room being very orderly, and each person knows his or her place. In Smiley’s headquarters, however, the wall is similar to a typical middle- to upper-class home with paintings and photographs for guests to admire.
Because the status of people and events being tracked are constantly updated, there is always commotion. Everyone has a goal and a job to do and so we become active participants in figuring out what those are and how they plan on accomplishing their aims.
But the picture is not without important weaknesses. Later on, we are given a list of five suspects: Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man (David Dencik), and Beggar Man (Oldman). While two or three are given proper background information rife with implications, the rest are pushed to the side. Given the time constraints, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers must deal with the challenge of weighing which aspects of the characters are important enough to include in the material so that the audience will have a relatively good idea or feeling toward each of them.
Although the filmmakers’ intentions are admirable, I was not fully convinced that their approach is successful. For example, I could not remember anything of particular importance that Soldier has done to garner suspicion, but I recalled Hinds’ stolid facial expressions and how shadows curiously find angles on his face which make him look sinister half the time. Since all the suspects are not fully explored, some might argue that we are expected to solve a puzzle with missing key pieces. Such a criticism is valid.
I imagined that if the film were about three hours long, it would have been a more potent and accomplished realistic spy-thriller. Based on the screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” meticulously directed by Tomas Alfredson, has a certain beauty that made me believe that I was looking through a time capsule. Its intricacies and uncertainties inspire us to think like the characters even though many of us may not have experience in similar situations.